Day of Dialog: Presenting the Past in History and Fiction

LJ kicked off BookExpo today with our annual Day of Dialog, featuring Jon Michaud, John Lithgow, Karin Slaughter, and other authors, book editors, and librarians.

In addition to Editors’ Picks (look for a list of forthcoming big titles to be posted soon) and moving quotes from Lithgow (more coverage to come), the second panel, Truth or Dare: Presenting the Past in History and Fiction, explored the differences and similarites between historical fiction and history.

Five authors, most with backgrounds in journalism, and one librarian spoke. Tony Horowitz (Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Holt, October) opened by joking about his personal experience with the different genres; he described his wife, Pulitzer Prize‚ winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, writing historical fiction 20 feet away from me‚Ķcalmly gazing at the screen, making stuff up as he searches through piles of research.

Amy Waldman (The Submission: A Novel, Farrar, August) said that in contrast to the grueling aspects of journalism, with fiction there’s a different rigor, but there’s more freedom. You have no idea as you write what’s going to happen. Novelist Julie Otsaka (The Buddha in the Attic, Knopf, August) researches as much as possible before writing and then tries to forget it. A useful tactic considering Pam Lewis’s (A Young Wife: A Novel, Simon & Schuster, June) sentiment: In fiction it’s the parts that are true that you have to throw away and discusses the importance of research as well as not letting it show. Yet nonfiction author David S. Reynolds (Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, Norton, June) emphasized a certain truth about fiction informed by an imaginative sympathy fiction evokes in readers.

DWI librarian Kathryn Lynip spoke of the work of bringing history and historical fiction to readers and the importance of knowing your reader before sending them one way or another. Although to some patrons the concept of history that reads like fiction is enticing, that phrasing may make another reader question the veracity of a serious piece of nonfiction. Librarians can help readers cross the boundary between history and historical fiction, as moderator and senior editor in the LJ book review Margaret Heilbrun phrased it, but Lynip emphasized, we don’t need to change what genre they read in.

Anna Katterjohn About Anna Katterjohn

Anna Katterjohn ( is Managing Editor for the LJ Book Review and assigns books on performing arts, cooking, home economics, and crafts.